Losing the 'Public' in Public Access TV Sooner Than Expected
Granted, it may be tough to feel connected to a TV platform with show titles such as "Smokey da Bear" and "Religion Stinks."
But producers at Pinellas County's cable access TV system are hoping to enlist the public's aid in preserving at least some of the dozens of programs now slated to disappear following officials' decision to shut down the "public" part of Access Pinellas.
For at least 20 years, companies that operate cable systems in Pinellas County have been required to maintain a public access TV operation -- a facility allowing anyone who takes the time to go through a little training, to create TV programs which are then aired on a special channel. Since 2001, that operation has been Access Pinellas -- a facility in Clearwater with over 100 unpaid volunteer producers cranking out shows ranging from politically-oriented talk to religious prayer.
When the state property tax cuts began forcing county officials to look at funding reductions, public access producers knew their programs might take a hit. But last week they learned county officials had decided to completely de-fund the "public" side of cable access TV, cutting nearly $350,000 and reassigning or laying off county employees connected to the shows. Under current plans, it all goes away Sept. 30.
Of course, Pinellas County will continue to operate Pinellas 18, the public access channel devoted to government-controlled programming. Funded in part by fees from every cable subscriber, this channel airs material ranging from public meetings and hurricane readiness tips to shows spotlighting the Sheriff's office, and issues handpicked by the county commissioners themselves. (Two volunteer-produced shows, Aging on the Suncoast and Pinellas Past, will continue to appear on Pinellas 18)
Access Pinellas producer Candi Jovan, a former candidate for the state legislature, doesn't believe the funding cuts are about saving money as much as controlling the cable access TV system. "This money is a drop in the bucket," she told me during a meeting Wednesday with several cable access producers. "The powers that be really don't want freedom of expression."
Marcia Crawley, the former WFLA-Ch. 8 reporter who now serves as director of the county's communications department, said she decided to cut the public part of cable access after department heads were told to reduce their budgets by 15 percent.
"It's unfortunate than any program folks are passionate about has to be eliminated," said Crawley, noting that the public now has access to Internet-based TV outlets which make the need for public access TV channels less pressing; changes in state law will likely eliminate the program in five years, anyway. "This is the reality we have to face when there are massive tax cuts."
Producers are still hoping to change county officials' minds, though they only have a few weeks before the budget cuts are finalized. Their biggest challenge: proving that a TV service most of us take for granted -- and probably don't watch very much -- remains necessary in an environment of slashed budgets and shrinking resources.
Creature Comforts Goes Away
CBS put the first stake in Creature Comforts -- the show I wrote about a few weeks ago created by a former St. Petersburg Times intern -- replacing it this week with re-runs of New Adventures of Old Christine. "We're not using the c-word yet," said one CBS official of the show, which featured cute animated characters voicing visual jokes built around real, pre-taped conversations. "It's just off the schedule.
That's network TV. Nobody ever tells you when you're canceled.
Us Magazine Vows to Stay Away From Hilton Story -- Media Critics Scratch Heads
Okay, I get that US magazine got skunked by People, which reportedly spent $300,000 to get an exclusive post-jail interview with Paris Hilton. But having the stones to declare this week's magazine "100% Paris free" when the celebutante's emergence from jail is the biggest celebrity story of the year?